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The Man Who Discovered Silver Spring's 'Silver Spring'

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The acorn gazebo was designed by Preston Blair to commemorate his proposal to his wife, which occurred beneath an oak tree.
The acorn gazebo was designed by Preston Blair to commemorate his proposal to his wife, which occurred beneath an oak tree.
Silver Spring Historical Society president Jerry McCoy at Acorn Park: the site thought to be where Preston Blair discovered the original “silver spring.” (Rebecca Sheir/WAMU)

The story goes that once upon a time, Silver Spring was little more than a silver spring. Literally.

At the intersection of East-West Highway, Newell Street and Blair Mill Road is a tiny triangle of land known as Acorn Park. It’s marked by a gazebo shaped like a massive, upside-down acorn, and a little stone grotto. And where that grotto stands, says Silver Spring Historical Society president Jerry McCoy, is where Silver Spring began.

“The beginning of Silver Spring starts in 1830 with the arrival of Francis Preston Blair, Sr. in Washington at the bequest of President Andrew Jackson, who had won the White House,” says McCoy.

The Frankfort, Ky., native was a newspaper editor. And his good friend Jackson invited him to serve as the editor of the Washington Globe: a Democratic newspaper that represented the policies in the Jackson administration.

Blair accepted, and in 1836 purchased a house diagonally across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. Today it’s known as Blair House, the official guest house of the President of the United States.

“But befitting a man of his social stature, he needed to also have his country estate,” McCoy explains. “So friends told him that if he took the 7th Street Pike (today’s Georgia Avenue) north, he would be at a high enough elevation to escape the heat of Washington in the summer time.”

Legend has it that during Blair’s horse ride up there, something startled his steed, Selim.

“Selim rears up, Blair goes flying off the back of the horse and by the time he catches up with Selim, the horse’s reins had gotten stuck in some underbrush,” McCoy says. “And there was a spring site, with water bubbling up and the horse was lapping the water."

“And Blair said that there was sand in this water that had mica flakes, which are metallic. And when the sun struck the water, it sparkled like silver. A silver spring.”

From forested hill to forest of condos

According to the story, Blair looked around and decided this spot would be ideal for building his country home, what with the ready supply of fresh water and all. So two years later he began construction on the home, which he called “Silver Spring.”

Multitudes of guests flocked to the place. After all, Blair served as the unofficial advisor to 12 U.S. Presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Ulysses S. Grant. And many heads of state came to visit as well.

Nowadays, a condominium stands where Blair’s house was, “just like there are condominiums everywhere in downtown Silver Spring,” McCoy says.

“I mean, when [Blair] sat here under this gazebo, it was nothing but forest around him,” McCoy goes on to explain. “And even when I started giving tours in 1995, none of these condominiums were around us, that you see today. And I kept telling people on the tours, ‘Silver Spring is going to be revitalized, Silver Spring is going to start growing. And one of these days it’s going to be completely closed in by apartment buildings.’ And I remember people just laughing — like ‘nobody’s going to want to live in downtown Silver Spring.’ And sure enough, this has come to fruition. I think [Blair] would be absolutely astounded.”

Not that Blair has been forgotten in the area. You can find plenty of nods to the Blair family around Silver Spring, including Blair Mill Road and Montgomery Blair High School, named for Blair’s son who became Postmaster General during the Lincoln administration.

But as for that mica-flecked spring, McCoy regrets that it is no more.

“In the late 1920s, a descendant of Blair, Colonel E. Brook Lee, started constructing today’s East West Highway to connect downtown Bethesda to downtown Silver Spring,” McCoy recounts. “And dynamite collapsed the underground strata of stone, and it cut off the underground supply of spring water.”

Local artist Mame Cohalon has painted scenes from Silver Spring’s history on this wall beside Acorn Park. (Rebecca Sheir/WAMU)

Blair legacy lives on

Something that does remain from Blair’s day is the acorn gazebo in Acorn Park, “which I refer to as the world’s largest acorn, which it is, probably,” McCoy says with a smile.

The gazebo was built in the early 1850s by carpenter Benjamin King, of North Takoma in D.C.

“Blair had commissioned him to design this gazebo that overlooked his spring, and it was his spring - no doubt about it!” McCoy says. “He had it designed in the shape of a giant upturned acorn, because according to the Blair family history, he had proposed marriage to Eliza Gist under an oak tree.”

McCoy says many Washington luminaries came and sat beneath this gazebo, including President Abraham Lincoln.

“There was even a scene in Stephen Spielberg’s 2012 movie Lincoln, in which Mary and Abe went out to visit [Blair],” McCoy explains. “Producers for the movie had contacted me a couple of years before the movie came out, searching for artwork for the Blair family crest, which actually exists.

“And of course they weren't going to tell me anything about what was going to be in the movie, but I just knew, ‘they’re going to have a scene with Francis Preston Blair!’ Sure enough, they did. Hal Holbrook played Blair, although he looked nothing like the real Francis Preston Blair.”

The family crest didn't wind up making it into the movie, and the Blair mansion “was completely wrong from the original house that Blair had built,” McCoy says. You can tell because the house is depicted on one of five murals next to Acorn Park, all painted by local D.C. artist Mame Cohalon, all depicting different aspects of Silver Spring’s history.

“So it’s a really nice, little, wonderful park here,” McCoy says. “And I invite everybody to come visit it and commune with Silver Spring’s history, sitting here under the gazebo.”

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